Today we have met Don Willcox of the “Foundation to Encourage the Potential of Disabled Persons.” Don has previously worked with disabled persons in Nepal and has now settles down with this Thai wife Pirana in Borgsan, close to Chiang Mai.
Don and Pirana work with disabled persons and today mainly provide wheel chairs to those who cannot afford to buy one themselves.
Our meeting with Don was very interesting. He has confirmed what we have learned from Saovanee (we have met her in Bangkok one month ago) that disabled persons are often discredited in Thailand. Many Buddhists believe that a handicap is the “payback” for a bad previous life. Thus, disabled persons “deserve” their faith; supporting them could attract bad karma.
Don told us, for example, that he had problems in the past with his neighbours which felt perturbed by the presence of disabled persons. Main objections, according to Don, came however from the monks and temples. As Saovanee told us previously, monks mostly encourage the donation to temples in order to “improve” one’s karma rather than helping people.
Don himself is a practising Buddhist, but he prefers to stand back from certain Thai customs. He compared the Thai Buddhism to the catholic religion in Europe: Practitioners are often far away from the “real” religious ideas. Don, however, stressed that one should not generalise, there are “veritable” Buddhists here, too.
When we asked Don on governmental action taken for disabled persons, he responded very critically. Even though the situation improves in Thailand, many disabled persons still have no access to care, education, work or even a dignified life.
Don explained that there is an increasing number of public facilities providing medical and therapeutical care to disabled people, but the people often have no access to these facilities. According to Don the main problem is transportation.
In Thailand it is usual that the grand-parents take care of a disabled child, so the parents can continue working. But the grand-parents themselves often have health issues and/or do not dispose of adapted transportation for the disabled family member(s). Don further told us, that sometimes men abandon their families if a disabled child is born, in order to found a new family with another woman.
Another main problem is the financial governmental support for disabled persons. Even if a disabled person has been trained and could work, he or she are rarely hired – mainly because of the bad image Thai people have of disabled persons. The Thai government grants 500 Baht to each disabled person per month, which is hardly enough for food – and there is accommodation and possibly necessary medication and special equipment which adds on.
The wheel chairs Don and Piranan supply mostly come from international donors, mainly the US and Australia. Even though the donations come obviously for free and normally there is no additional tax (according to Thai law, donations are exempt from taxes), Don told us that they have a lot of expenses when bringing the wheel chairs from Bangkok Harbour to Chiang Mai. Numerous administrations apparently want to enrich themselves and without paying a bribe, the wheel chairs would never arrive in Chiang Mai.
Don has shown us a couple of wheel chair models he distributes. According to him, the Westerners often think “too complicated.” The wheel chairs are adaptable in many ways what seems practical, but what does not correspond to the needs in Thailand. The technology is too complicated for many recipients. Further, the wheel chairs are more fragile with all the “jan-ken-pon.” Don has told his concerns to the constructors, but no prolific adjustments had been made so far.
Don and Piranan not only supply wheel chairs since 1993, but also medical care, education and moral support to disabled persons in Northern Thailand.
The moral support seems to be an important point. As disabled persons are often disregarded, their self-esteem is low. Don has shown us books – mainly for children – which the foundation distributes in order to show disabled persons that they are just as important and that they have the right to a dignified life.
The meeting with Don was very moving for us. The situation of disabled persons in Thailand is precarious, especially in rural regions. Even though there has been improvement over the last years, many still have no access to necessary care and are socially isolated. Don has told us so much more, but this article is already long enough. If you have any further questions, please contact us or write an email to Don.